Folklorist Jon Kay. Photo by Martin Boling


Jon Kay remembers reading a 2015 Gallup report that ranked Indiana 46th in the overall well-being of its elders. “That’s horrible,” says the Indiana University professor of folklore and ethnomusicology. “I thought if we could just nudge people toward creative practices, we might be able to do something about that terrible statistic.”

Since 2015, Kay, 54, has written a book and edited another about elders and the folk arts they produce. The Stone Head, Indiana, native recently won a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant, which will be matched by IU, for his Elder Music Recording Project.

For the project, Traditional Arts Indiana, a program directed by Kay that resides within IU’s Arts and Humanities Council, will record musicians and singers performing several genres of traditional music, including African American gospel, old-time country, German waltzes, German American polka, and Mennonite shape-note singing.

Each genre will be recorded in a part of the state where it enjoys historical and social significance, and 1,000 CDs will be pressed for each recording. Traditional Arts Indiana will host CD release parties in the communities where the recordings take place. The first CD will be available in April; all of them by next year.

Though Kay has not identified most of the performers yet, he says that one or two will represent each genre and that he hopes to include Bloomington musicians and producers. “The musicians play in church or community jams, so they’re known in their communities but not outside them. I want to give them a boost,” he says.

Kay also wants the project to do something special for the elderly listeners of the CDs. Some of the funding has been used to pay music therapists to write individual and group therapy practices for elders and their caregivers, which include visualization, memory, and reflection exercises and conversation topics to be included in a listening guide. Two hundred guides will be produced for each CD.

The CDs and listening guides will be given to those attending the CD release parties, to public libraries around the state, and to those requesting them at

“The guide suggests how music can give elders something to do to fight isolation, boredom, and helplessness,” Kay says. “It’s a call to action.”